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China: land of milk and money

Cows awaiting milking on a farm in Luannan County, Hebei Province, China Cows awaiting milking on a farm in Luannan County, Hebei Province, China Yuangeng Zhang / Shutterstock
27 Mar
Growing demands for dairy products from an increasingly wealthy China are set to have a dramatic impact on the country’s carbon emissions

‘I have a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, sufficient milk each day.’ Such words, spoken ten years ago by then-Premier Wen Jiabao, reflected one of China’s many ambitious national goals to lead the people towards more Western lifestyles, in tandem with aspirations for increased meat, egg and cheese consumption. Consequently, milk production in China has grown from almost zero back in the 1970s, to nearly 40 million tonnes annually, making China the world’s fourth largest milk producer.

Potential obstacles to be overcome in driving up milk consumption have included a widespread lactose intolerance (in excess of 90 per cent of Chinese adults, according to one study) and the fallout from a 2008 milk scandal in which local dairies were found to be adding the potentially harmful chemical melamine into baby milk. The result of the scandal was that imported milk products are now heavily favoured over distrusted domestic counterparts.

Nevertheless, milk consumption in China – which was less than 2kg per person a year in 1961 – is set to rise from around the current 30kg per person (compared to more than 150kg in Europe and North America) to more than three times that figure by 2050.

milkA worker at the Jiangxi Meilu dairy in China producing powdered milk (Image: Humphery)

A new study by a team of international researchers – including the University of Bristol and Rothamsted Research, an agricultural science research centre in Hertfordshire – has analysed the environmental consequences of such an exorbitant rise, particularly with concern to the knock-on effect for greenhouse gas emissions created in the process of dairy production. It calculates that emissions will climb by 35 per cent (from 565 million metric tonnes CO₂ equivalent, to 764 million metric tonnes), while nitrogen pollution from dairy production will rise by 48 per cent. There will also need to be a significant rise in the amount of land set aside for growing animal feed, whether in China itself (from 84 to 111 million hectares, a growth of 32 per cent) or, if imported from other parts of the world such as New Zealand and Europe, by as much as 1.3 million ha and 15 million ha respectively.

‘For a more sustainable dairy future globally, high milk demanding regions, such as China, must match the production efficiencies of the world’s leading producers,’ insists Zhaohai Bai, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and lead author of the study. ‘Greenhouse gas emissions would rise much more modestly and land use would also contract. The consequences of sticking to a “business-as-usual” scenario are unthinkable.’ 

This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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